Kate Williams

Still, We Swipe: Dating identities in the age of Tinder


The problem with writing about Tinder is that it is easy to get distracted. Log in for research purposes, and the next thing I know, it’s been 30 minutes and my thumb is sore. Number of times I’ve been on Tinder since I started working on this essay: at least 20. Number of matches in that time: 28. Total conversations: 9. Total dates: 3.

The best way to use Tinder is in short bursts of rapid activity. The first week I used it was a booze-filled one, which helped me brave the sheer terror of joining a dating app and kept things loose and funny. I uploaded a few pictures and wrote a very short bio: “I write about food on the Internet. Like: hikes, yoga, bikes. Don’t like: bananas.” It turns out the banana statement was a real winner. Witness the following, with one of my first Tinder matches:

J, 34: “Hi there. You don’t like bananas?”
I glance at his profile again. Not really interested: “Nope. Bananas are the worst food in the world.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way. It’s okay cuz yer cute though.”
Cuz I’m cute? Okay: “I don’t know why anyone likes bananas. They ruin everything.”
“I wish you liked bananas more. I honestly never realized this could be a factor. You’re beautiful and intelligent but you dislike bananas.”
Oh wait, now I’m beautiful and intelligent and cute? “Haha I pretty much eat everything except bananas.”
“Disgusting. You’re cool in my book” Time to stop this conversation.
J, again the next morning: “Good morning! Let’s get past this whole bananas thing”

I never responded.

Also this one, from A, an “unabashed domestic nudist” whose profile picture is a naked black and white picture of his backside in which he is drawing a bow and arrow:
“I swiped right because I’m hungry and I regret nothing.”
I am drunk and decide to be forward and ambiguous: “What are you hungry for?”
“I was hungry for what childhood tasted like.”

Oh, really? He continued by making some off-color sex-related jokes about eating, uh, clams, before I un-matched him and the conversation disappeared into the ether.

There was also S, who called me a unicorn and then tried to get me to take him out on a review dinner. And P, who at least was honest about what he wanted, but had a hard time with capitalization and punctuation: “Can i go with you to critique some restaurants. My palate appreciates fine dining” Oh, and M, whose opening line, “So you don’t like bananas, but how do you feel about giant sausages? ;) lol,” just got a return “lol” from me. He was a spearfisherman with a dalmatian and really wanted to meet up.

The following week, I decided to get serious and only have adult conversations. These were generally more boring, but led to actual encounters. I ended up on a couple of dates with one guy who seemed less creepy than the others and didn’t want to capitalize on my free food connections. We had a couple of decent dates, but he liked gin better than whiskey and psilocybin better than beer. And, while he worked in the food industry, he regularly ate SpoonRocket.1

Plus, I got momentarily distracted by my dream date, a professional cook who, it turned out after a couple of really fun dates, has no time for dating. Getting dumped by a casual acquaintance that you’re still super into feels a lot like watching your middle school crush slow dance with your mortal frenemy at the Halloween dance. It’s a quick, intense punch to the gut, but then you remember that there are plenty of other nervous wallflowers out there.

Yes, it’s pretty easy to bounce back from momentary Tinder heartbreak. The app’s sheer abundance of semi-anonymous semi-available men allows for instant attention and gratification. The ease of entry and attention is the reason why every one of my single friends has either used Tinder in the past or is currently swiping for love and lust. Last year, they were all on OkCupid. When I became single after almost a decade of monogamous relationships, I couldn’t imagine going through the arduous process of answering a long questionnaire about my life story. That required commitment and an acknowledgement that I was indeed single and looking. Joining Tinder was simple; it required about two minutes of my time and pretty much zero effort. And, despite (or because of) all of the weirdos, it’s actually fun.

Because the app requires so little input, it is easy to completely transform yourself from match to match. A few photos and a vague bio don’t reveal much about your personality; each conversation is a blank slate. If I’m chatting with a fellow who has a strange, humorous bio, I’ll crack a few jokes, be sarcastic, and generally not take anything seriously. If I can see that another guy actually knows how to construct full sentences and doesn’t use emojis in his bio, I’ll do the same. Unlike a detailed, algorithmic dating site, Tinder allows for radical flexibility. I am never the same person twice.

This realization has been surprisingly empowering. When I first encountered off-taste penis jokes in Tinder messages, my reaction was to make a face and immediately unmatch the perpetrator. (See above, re: nudist and spearfisherman). This weekend, though, I realized I could tackle these suckers head-on.

K had a ridiculous bio; it was a non-funny story about being abducted by aliens. But he looked cute and sort of reasonable, so I swiped right. When we matched, I sent a jokey message: “What planets did the aliens come from?”
“The planet banana. I want to go back.”
“Banana aliens sound scary to me.”
“They are actually pretty cool. Yeah, they probed and drugged me but in the end they somehow gave me a big penis.”
The next morning, I responded: “I had such high hopes for you with this alien story. But then, the penis joke. Sigh.”
Within five minutes, he had unmatched me. Thank goodness for screenshots and the anonymity of the Internet. What would have been a creepy, demoralizing encounter at a bar is now a funny joke I can share with my friends.

That’s the point, Tinder founders Sean Rad and Justin Mateen told Time Magazine last year. “Nobody joins Tinder because they’re looking for something,” Rad told the magazine. “They join because they want to have fun.” Rad and Mateen initially launched the app at the University of Southern California and specifically targeted students in the Greek system — in other words, people who didn’t necessarily need to use a dating app to get laid. By making Tinder feel like a game, however, the founders were able to generate rapid interest.

Aziz Ansari’s surprisingly thorough new book, Modern Romance, addresses many of these issues. Tinder isn’t the only technology discussed in the book, but, as is appropriate for the rapidly growing interest in the app, it dominates the conversation. As Ansari writes, “It was low stakes and easy to use, and if you played it well, you might hook up with someone in a matter of hours.” In that way, early Tinder was very much like Grindr, the gay hookup app. But unlike Grindr, mutual interest is required for messaging and you can’t send pictures — no dick pics, unless you want to put one of those up as a semi-public “moment.” (You can, of course, talk about dicks as much as you’d like.)

Ansari started tracking people’s Tinder use in 2013. He says that two years ago, users reported signing up for the app “on a lark” and that they “treated it as a party game” as a “hookup app for sex.” After witnessing a 22-year-old “play” Tinder, I’m happy to report that, for users in their early 20s, the app is still mainly used as a party game for sex. So there’s that.

But, Ansari continues, the attitude towards the app is now shifting. “By late 2014 people’s attitudes about Tinder were dramatically different, especially in the big cities where it first got popular. People we spoke with in New York and Los Angeles were using Tinder as the go-to dating app. It wasn’t just a sex app. It wasn’t a game. People were using it to meet people for relationships and dating because it was quick, fun, and easy. The change in perception was startling.”

Tinder reports that its average user is now 27 and spends more than an hour on the app every day. It generates over 12 million daily matches. And among those older users, I’ve noticed, it is much easier to get a date than a hookup. Everyone that I found interesting wanted to set a date at some point in the near future. I’ve never gotten a message for an immediate booty call. Those penis jokers are just hiding behind the safety of their phones. At least in my age group, it is a dating app, full stop.

But that may be making things more stressful. When using Tinder as a hookup game, it feels like going with a group of friends to a bar, drinking a lot, and seeing how many dudes you can talk to. It’s funny, totally non-serious, and almost always easy to forget about the next day. It doesn’t matter that you hit on 10 or 15 people. The numbers are just a game.

This changes when you decide to amass large numbers of suitors for potential dates. One day about a month ago, I was trying to talk with five different people at once. By this time, I had over 60 matches, though, and things were getting confusing. Which Chris am I talking to? Which one of you is a food person? Who did I tell that joke to about the banana? MY THUMBS HURT. FUCK.

More significantly, I figured out that I needed to prioritize which of these people I actually wanted to talk to outside of the app. But choosing who to actually see and who to bail on is itself its own challenge. The things that make Tinder great — low commitment, low effort — make it hard to actually suss out who holds potential interest and who doesn’t. It means you have to go on a gut instinct. That’s stressful, especially when your match numbers get high. Everyone blurs together.

There’s some science behind this stress. The psychologist Herbert Simon started talking about the problems with an abundance of choice in the 1950s, pioneering the idea of “maximizers” and “satisficers.” Those who are “maximizers” regularly pursue the very best option in choice scenarios, while “satisficers” are happy to choose a selection that is “good enough.” Psychologists have riffed on these ideas over the last 60 years or so. Today, Barry Schwartz from Swarthmore is the loudest such voice. He has conducted several experiments in which he links maximizing behavior to dissatisfaction and even depression. Calling the issue “choice overload,” Schwartz argues that our over-abundance of choices today doesn’t make us happier; rather, it induces anxiety and reduces satisfaction. When we as maximizing consumers are faced with an endless supply of choice, we often end up regretting our decisions, believing that we could have chosen better. Schwartz says that we often don’t even make a choice; instead we find ourselves paralyzed by all of our options and end up walking away. In other words, there’s always a better choice out there, and it is nearly impossible to find it. In 2004’s The Paradox of Choice, he cited studies on picking out jam at the grocery store. Now, things are even more overwhelming — with the rise of the smartphone, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and Tinder come more choices than we ever had before.

And when it comes to dating, this abundance leads us to do some pretty dumb things. It is shockingly easy to fall into a Tinder habit. I can’t spend just a couple of minutes on it at a time. The flipping and swiping is just too darn pleasurable to stop. That gratifying ping and fade to black when that right swipe leads to a match is just even more positive reinforcement. And when there are seemingly infinite options for potential suitors, you can’t help but keep looking to try to find that one perfect date.

Tinder allows us to all become dating maximizers. We’re not only transforming ourselves into our own perfect fantasy version of our own personality, we’re also compiling all of these faces into a fantasy soulmate. As Anzari writes, “If we ... are creating a ‘fantasy’ person full of all our desired qualities, doesn’t the vast potential of the Internet and all our other romantic pools give us the illusion that this fantasy person does, in fact, exist? Why settle for anything less?”

While we swipe through various potential matches, we create a new persona, one that ideally makes us appeal to all of the other maximizers out there. The choices we make about what to reveal in the snippet of our profile are an aesthetic choice, and an important one.

I have a friend who deliberately included the words “feminism” and “cats” in her bio so that she can immediately filter out cat-hating assholes. Another friend only included a nonsense poem. My banana-hating comment generates more messages than anything else. We have all had varying success and failures over the last few months of use.

Perhaps it is telling that Tinder incites the most fascination from those who are not on it. From the outside, it appears indulgent, promiscuous, objectifying, and a little creepy. It removes the wholesomeness from the dating equation; when there are so few barriers to conversation, it is easy to perform or blurt out offensive jokes. I felt a little dirty when I first downloaded it. Yet, as my brother aptly put it: still, we swipe.

1SpoonRocket is a meal delivery service currently in the Bay Area and Seattle that sells a limited menu of low-quality meals within a 15-minute time window. Drivers keep meals warm in their car at all times. It is glorified airline food. Tinder is actually a lot like SpoonRocket, if you picture all of your potential matches as instant-gratification dinners.

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